Are you planning a road cycling holiday and want some support? Sifting through the best bike tour companies and feeling overwhelmed by the choice? We’re here to help.
There are lots of reasons for wanting to go with a tour company rather than DIY it (but if you’re still undecided, check out our tips here). Perhaps it’s your first time cycling abroad or you’re inspired by the Tour de France climbs but want a bit of back-up in place should your bike (or legs!) give up part way through.
Once you’ve decided an organised cycling holiday/small group tour is the way to go, choosing the best bicycle tour company for your needs is imperative. Yet with so many companies out there, it can also be quite difficult!
With that in mind, in this article we share the most important things to think about when choosing a road bike tour company to holiday with.
1. The basics – Where do you want to go and how much will it cost?
Different cycling tour companies cover different parts of the world and so the first thing to think about is where exactly you want to go. Do you fancy the challenging climbs of the Alps and the accompanying reward of stunning mountain views? Or perhaps you’d prefer a more reliably sunny climate like Spain where you can spend a bit of time relaxing on the beach too?
Your first step should be to choose a destination, or at least narrow if down to the type of destination you fancy exploring on your bike.
For inspiration, take a look at all the cycling destinations we’ve written about, here, or our article on the best cycling destinations in Europe and the best cycling weekend destinations in Europe may be useful.
Once you’ve decided where, compare some different tours. Think about the price (and what’s included/excluded for that) and deposit. Also consider the cancellation, policy and any single supplements.
2. What kind of cycling holiday do you want?
There’s a bike holiday to suit every cyclist, from gran fondo and cyclo sportive events to relaxed cycling tours with an emphasis on sightseeing.
You’ll need to decide how long you want to spend in the saddle and how long you want to spend exploring the history, culture and gastronomy of the places you visit to find the best type of road bike holiday for you.
Think about your own fitness level and the distances you want to cover each day. Whilst a tour that includes 150 km and several big climbs each day might sound fantastic on paper, if you’re not fit enough for it, you’ll soon come to regret your decision! Don’t just focus on distance each day, the elevation profiles are extremely important. Companies use terms like “beginner”, “leisure”, “advanced” and “avid” and each company has a slightly different ranking system, so if you’re worried dig for more detail!
3. How many days riding to you want?
Guided bike tours range from weekend trips to tours covering two weeks or more. Whilst some tours cover less than 50km of flat ground per day, more challenging tours might cover more like 100 miles a day and much more hilly terrain.
Pay close attention to the number of actual riding days your tour operator is offering. For example, it may be advertised as a six day trip but days one and two are more than likely going to be spent arriving and departing. Will there be a rest day in the middle? How many days actual biking will there be?
Talking of rest days, we all know they’re important to give our bodies a chance to recover. But depending on the length of the trip, your objectives and the number of riding days you’re looking for, you might want to delve into the detail of the rest days. Are there enough? Are there too many?! (In which case, check whether there’s an option to still ride on the rest day if you want to). Do they seem sensibly spaced out?
4. Are the reviews positive?
Checking out supported bike tour reviews should be a vital step before you commit to booking any cycling holiday. A great site to use is Stridetravel, which has collated a whole host of reviews from fellow cyclists who have scored the popular road cycling holiday companies on value, guides, activities, lodging, transportation and meals.
It’s worth also checking TripAdvisor, Trust Pilot and Google reviews to make sure that other cyclists recommend the tour and haven’t been left disappointed for any reason.
You may well get a good sense of how clients have been treated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Reviews may mention how tour operators have behaved and what their policies have been on returning monies paid for trips that could not go ahead.
5. The best bike tour companies will be super helpful – is yours?
A good road bike tour company should be available and willing to answer all your questions before you book. If you have to wait for days after sending an email enquiry, or they never answer the phone/return your calls, you should probably look for an alternative company.
If you have particular cycling tour in mind, ask the tour company how many years the trip has run for, so that you can be sure that they are experienced in that particular destination and the trip is well-planned out. Do you really want to be guinea pig?!
You could also see if there’s an Epic Road Rides guide to the destination and swot up on any particular must-do rides. If the tour company is good at their job, they’ll be able to engage with you in a sensible and knowledgeable conversation about those rides.
6. Are they legit?!
This might sound boring, but in fact it’s a really important point: does the business you’re entrusting your holiday to comply with all the proper rules and regulations?
Do they have a right to run tours in the country they’re operating in? For example, if you’re using a British-based business to go on a holiday in a European country, there is a whole heap of new regulation they have to comply with. If they’re not fully complying, it could affect your holiday (for example if they don’t have the right visa and work permit, your British tour guide might be refused entry at the border).
Do they have liability insurance?
Are they bonded (e.g. via ABTA) or do they have financial failure insurance?
Do they train their guides in guiding, customer service and first aid?
These might be the kind of things you assume every business does/complies with, but it’s surprising how many stories we hear of cycling tour operators that aren’t playing it entirely straight.
Motto of the story: if you’re not sure, ask!
7. Will the bike tour guide be any good?
In our experience, a good tour guide is a vital cog in the workings of a successful cycle holiday. Ideally, you’ll want a guide who speaks English as well as the local language of the country you’re exploring and has a good local knowledge to teach you about the culture and traditions of your destination.
Ask the bike tour company who the guide will be. Whilst some companies have their own in-house guides, others sub-contract these roles so may be less aware of what the guide is like and whether they’re properly trained and experienced.
You could ask the company whether it trains its guides and/or requires they have any formal qualifications in guiding and first aid.
It’s important to make sure that the bike tour company is willing to answer any questions you have about your tour guide and is confident in their abilities. If you’re particularly experienced, you might also want to check with the company regarding the guide’s skill and fitness level, to check they’re up to the task of keeping up with you! You could even ask for references for some extra reassurance.
8. Who will be in the group?
Think about the demographics of your group and try to book a tour with like-minded cyclists if you can.
If you’re a solo traveller, you might prefer to book a specialist singles cycling holiday. A group bike tour for solo cyclists can be particularly good in the evenings, as others will be less likely to go off and do their own thing leaving you on your own!
There are women-only cycling holidays if that’s your thing, or some tours might be more popular with couples or families.
9. How big is the group?
You should check what the guide-to-guest ratio is for your bicycle tour. With six guests per guide, you can be confident of getting all the attention you need. Any more than fifteen guests makes it virtually impossible for the guide to keep track of you all, and you’ll likely end up on a self-guided trip, which can be a very frustrating experience.
Smaller groups are generally better as you’ll enjoy a more tailored adventure. It may also allow the option to choose whether you want to do longer or shorter days/extra diversions depending on how you’re all feeling.
As well as the guide-to-guest ratio, check up on the number of other support crew – will there be a broom wagon at the back of the group? Will there be a mechanic and someone experienced in first aid (more on this below)?
10. How much roadside support will there be?
For complete peace of mind, look for bicycle tour companies that offer full roadside support with a fully-equipped back-up vehicle. A support vehicle offers the reassurance that, should you seize up and not be able to make it all the way, you and your bike always have a way to get back to the hotel. It’s also a handy place to keep your extra clothing, leg and arm warmers, sun cream, cameras and any other paraphernalia. And, of course, lots of snacks!
The best support car drivers are qualified first-aiders and also competent bike mechanics (or there are additional staff with these kills).
Whilst you’ll probably have no problem with simple tasks like mending a puncture on your own, having a dedicated bike mechanic in the support car can be a godsend should something more serious happen to your bike and you need some mechanical assistance.
11. What will the food and accommodation be like?
Is a luxury hotel important to you, or would you be more comfortable in cheap and cheerful lodgings? Don’t waste money on cycling holiday with luxury accommodation if you’d be just as happy in a clean but basic room.
If you have any special dietary requirements such as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, be sure to check that these can be catered for, both in the hotel and with the roadside food options. In some countries, even seemingly easy dietary requirements like being a vegetarian, might not be a foregone conclusion!
On a cycling holiday, you’ll burn through a lot of calories while riding. Check whether the tour includes roadside snacks or whether you’re expected to provide them yourself.
12. What are the extra costs?
When deciding on the best cycling tour companies, you should work out what’s included in the fee you pay upfront, and what’s an extra cost. The cheapest cycling holidays might not offer the best value if you’re expected to pay for extras such as bike hire, entry into attractions, tips and food/drinks.
Most cycling holidays are priced without flights and transfers so you’ll need to factor those costs in. If you’re taking your bike too, rather than hiring, remember to add on any extra baggage charges and extra transfer costs.
European cycling holidays will obviously be cheaper than tours of far-flung destinations in South Africa, Asia, New Zealand or North America. However, even within Europe there can be huge differences in the cost of flights (this is a useful article with loads of tips on how to find cheap flights). It’s important to look up the cost of flights from your local airport when working out the total cost of various cycling holidays and deciding which offers the best value.
13. Is the tour guaranteed to go ahead?
Each bike tour will need a minimum number of cyclist to go ahead. If you book a tour which isn’t yet guaranteed, there’s a chance that it will be cancelled if not enough cyclists join the trip. To avoid this, you could look for tours with ‘guaranteed departures’, which have already reached the minimum numbers.
It’s not recommended to book your flights/travel for a cycling trip which isn’t yet guaranteed, as you may lose money if it’s cancelled and you have to change your flights. Flights are often cheaper the further in advance you can book them, so a cycling tour which has guaranteed numbers even several months before departure is a solid bet.
If, for whatever reason, you end up needing to book travel etc around an unconfirmed trip, check your travel insurance to ensure you’re covered if the trip doesn’t go ahead. Otherwise, be prepared to take the risk!
14. Are there any alternatives?
This article has focused on traditional cycling tour companies, the kind that offer guided and/or self-guided trips and as a minimum are happy to arrange your accommodation, luggage transfer, routes as well as provide back-up in case of emergency.
However, this does come with a price tag. For those looking for a more cost-effective alternative, there are other solutions.
Organising your own holiday is the obvious way to reduce the cost of a trip. You’re on your own, but that might appeal! (And of course our site has tons of information to try and help anyone wanting to arrange their own trip.)
Stay at a cycle-friendly hotel
Cycle-friendly hotels often offer a myriad of services in addition to somewhere to rest your head. Of course, it depends on the hotel, but pick the right one and you should find someone who can help you arrange things like bike hire, guiding and mechanical support.
We’ve tried to take the hard work out of this – head to our accommodation page to find our picks of the best places to stay in various destinations.
Another alternative is to go “guide only”. “Guide only” is a term we use for what tends to be an independent guide offering a no-frills service to cyclists that want a day or two of riding with someone who’s there to show them the way and keep them company. It’s a bit like riding with a (paid!) friend.
The details of what “guide only” means in practice varies from guide to guide.
- You shouldn’t assume they have things like an official business operator license, training or insurance; in our experience, they normally won’t.
- Usually, the guide will provide you with a route and ride with you, but any extras on top of that will be on a case-by-case basis.
- If you want to make sure they offer a particular service or have particular expertise or qualifications, check with them before you book.
While the unregulated nature of these kinds of informal guides may be a deal-breaker for some cyclists, there are positives:
- Low overheads mean they tend to offer an attractive price.
- These kind of guides tend to be local cyclists living in the area – and so they should know the rides well and be able to share lots of local knowledge with you.
- For many offering this kind of informal, independent guiding, it is an additional source of income alongside their day job. As a result, they are usually pretty flexible on dates and the number of days guiding they offer.
These kinds of guide reach out to us quite frequently. We probably won’t have tried their services ourselves, but if we know someone in the location you want to visit, we’re happy to put you in touch so you can ask your questions direct to them and decide if they’re for you. Drop us a line if you would like us to put you in touch with someone on a “guide only” basis.
15. Are they eco-friendly?
Given the importance of climate change, arguably this should be number 1 on your list! If it’s something you care about, you should definitely look into this. Don’t assume all cycling holidays are eco-friendly holidays – they’re not. We’ve written a whole article on how to have an eco-friendly cycling trip, here.
What questions do you ask before booking a bike tour?!
Have we missed anything? Let us know below!
Here’s a list of the cycling holiday companies we’ve worked with – the articles we’ve created with them should give you a good sense of the people behind the brands.
We’d also love to hear your favourite bike tour companies. Feel free to share your experiences below and we’ll be sure to reply.
And finally… check out our summary of the best (or at least best known)
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